I wouldn’t live there if you paid me

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In 2015, the population of the Greater Toronto Area cracked 6 million people. That is more people than the whole of British Columbia and accounts for 29% of the total population of Canada. According to Statistics Canada, only 20% of Canadians live in rural areas. (I can’t wait to hear the update statistics coming out of our first real census since 2011.)

I am one of the 80% of Canadians who grew up and currently live in an urban area, which is why I am always bothered by children’s books that paint rural life as an idyllic paradise and city life as nasty, brutish and short.

Yes, yes, pros and cons for both choices exist, blah, blah, blah, but in the world of children’s literature, I come across proportionally more rural-based stories or read negative portrayals of cities and city life more often. Which brings me to the classic Aesop Fable The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.

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In the original tale, the city mouse scoffs at the country mouse’s simple meal and offers an invitation to the city. Upon his arrival in town, the country mouse tastes rich food but is almost killed by dogs while eating and decides he was better off with his simple, safe life in the country and returns home. Most modern adaptations take a to-each-his-own approach, but an undercurrent of rural superiority still remains.

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The music is too loud in the city

 

In the beautifully illustrated version by Helen Ward, the only hint of difficulty to rural living is “the aching hunger of a long, cold winter” and the cons of the city outweigh the pros. The story in Mousetropolis by R. Gregory Christie is more balanced but the illustrations don’t always support the city’s advantages. Jan Brett’s take is the most even of the ones that I’ve read, and the illustrations, with detailed, supporting stories in the margins of the page, complement the main narrative well without making a judgement on the mice’s choices.

I doubt my kids notice these distinctions overtly, my five year old prefers one of the more traditional tellings because he finds it funnier, but as city dwellers we have a surprisingly difficult time finding books reflecting our kids’ experiences. My three year old loves Toronto ABC by Paul Covello because he visits the places mentioned in the book. Some of the great ones we’ve come across in recent years include Symphony City by Amy Martin and Sidewalk Flowers by JonAron Lawson, illustrated by Sydney Smith. As the kids get older, we make a bigger effort to find overtly pro-urban stories, which portray cities not as places to overcome but places full of wonder, experience, and growth – just like the city we call home.

 

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All I learned in my son’s junior kindergarten

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My oldest son is reaching the end of his first year of school. We knew sending him to junior kindergarten would be a big change. He had never been in daycare and only interacted with kids at a community playtime or when visiting his cousins. I admit, we were a little nervous about what he would bring home, but for the most part, our fears have been unfounded. He has forged friendships, completed inquiries on topics that engaged his mind, and learned more about the world around him. He loves his teachers and regularly tells us how much he loves school. Kindergarten success!

The main downside of his new experiences has been the increasing gender division throughout the year. In September, his most common afterschool playmate was a girl from his class. For Halloween, he dressed as Julie Andrews. But by January, he no longer played with the girls in his class, and we began to hear about girl colours and boy colours, stories for girls and stories for boys.

Whenever the topic comes up, we try to have an age-appropriate conversation and encourage him to think about why he believes some things are for girls and some things are for boys. Trying to argue about every gender stereotype is a losing battle, so giving him the skills to think critically is our real aim. Watching him grow and figure things out for himself is a joy.

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But this school year just reminded me to watch my gender expectations as well. As the mother of two boys, I lamented for a while about not having a girl to share with all the things I loved growing up, especially books and stories.

Since the beginning of May, my son and I have read Charlotte’s Web twice. I wasn’t sure he would be interested. I don’t remember my older brothers reading this book, though I loved it, and the main human protagonist is an 8-year-old girl. I promised him that we would read the first chapter and if he wasn’t interested we could set it aside. We read four chapters the first night, and the moment we finished the book, he asked if we could read it again. And, in the wonderful coincidences of life, a spider built a web outside his bedroom window, so he named it Charlotte, after his favourite character.

With the success of reading Charlotte’s Web, I’m beginning to get excited about sharing all the other books I loved as a child, without worrying about if it is a girl book or a boy book. I can’t wait to introduce him to Anne of Green Gables or Karana from The Island of the Blue Dolphins.

A good story is just a good story.

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#tbt book nerd style

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Some books are like warm hugs. You always feel good when you read them no matter how many times you’ve read the same words. When I was younger, that book was Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke.

Oke is a prolific and beloved author of Christian children’s books. Published in 1979, Love Comes Softly is Oke’s first novel and the first book in a series of eight following the same family. From that one book, Oke launched her career, which now includes over 70 books and several awards.

Set in the 1800s, Love Comes Softly tells the story of Marty and Clark Davis. The two meet under tragic circumstances after Marty’s husband dies in a horse-riding accident. Alone on the frontier, Marty, newly pregnant, has nowhere to turn until Clark, father of a one-year-old daughter, who also recently lost his wife, proposes a marriage of convenience. He even promises that, come spring, if Marty is unhappy, he will pay for her return east if only she brings his daughter with her so she can have a mama.

Christian Children's Books, Janette Oke

Feels like a warm hug

And so begins a year of challenges, frustrations, growth, and, of course, unexpected love.

Love for a little girl, for a new baby, for an unplanned couple and for God.

I grew up in a Christian household, and the rhythms of prayer, reading the Bible, and Sunday rest found in Clark’s home, which are completely foreign to Marty, echoed the atmosphere of my own home.

Over the course of the book, Marty realizes a love for Clark and a love for God. These great loves are the heart of the whole Love Comes Softly series.

Reading Love Comes Softly is like climbing back into the chair in my parents’ living room, when I was small enough to be enveloped in its cushions, feeling secure and sure of the world and my place in it. Perhaps it is time for a reread.

Do you have a book that feels like a warm hug?

#tbt book nerd style

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Today is International Children’s Book Day and it is a (throwback) Thursday, so I thought I would mark the occasion with a post about a book I read as a child.

I bought The Seventh Princess by Nick Sullivan at a Scholastic book fair at my elementary school. Do you remember having book fairs at your school? I loved them. All the books lined up on tables. Getting a little money from my parents to pick out a book for myself. It was so exciting.

The Seventh Princess by Nick Sullivan (1983)

I’ve kept it all these years because of the memory of getting to buy it for myself and for the pleasure of the story. The Seventh Princess tells the story of Jennifer, a young girl who is transported off her school bus to a strange land where everyone thinks she is a princess. But, as Jennifer learns, being a princess in this place is no fairy tale and she will soon be turned into a harpy, doomed to do the bidding of the powerful sorceress Swenhild. With the help of some new friends, Jennifer must break the spell and free the kingdom and the princesses from Swenhild’s grasp.

I was really into fantasy at the time and I loved the cover – I still do, something about the blue of her cloak and the town in the background. So The Seventh Princess still sits on my shelf, waiting for my kids to get old enough to enjoy it.

Do you have any books that you’ve held on to from your childhood?

Raising a Reader

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My mom was a primary school teacher for over thirty years and teaching children to read was one of her greatest joys. She said that the moment you could sit a kid on your lap was the moment you should start reading to them. So when I started having children, I wanted to instill the same love for reading that my Mom gave to me.

My first son loved books from the start. He would always sit still and listen. And now, at the age of three, he picks out from the library and reads simple board books on his own. He was born a reader, and he needs no encouragement to select reading as an activity.

My second son, who turned one in May, is a completely different person. Since moment he learned how to rollover, he has been on the move. He learned to crawl and climb at an earlier age than his big brother, and once he started walking there was no keeping him in one place. The idea of sitting with him, book in hand, and enjoying a good read was laughable.

Until recently.

In the past month, he has started to pick up books to read rather than to eat. He will clamber up the couch or on to my lap, book in hand, and turn the pages, tapping on pictures that he likes (usually birds). He still doesn’t sit still for all the words, preferring to flip the pages, but he is actively choosing books.

Little Bird's first favourite books

Little Bird’s first favourite books

I was so excited, but I was also relieved.

Which made me wonder – why was I so anxious for him to want to read? Not just to be able to read, general basic literacy, which still a long way off, but to be a reader for pleasure. To be a kid who will read outside of school hours and assigned reading.

What is the value in reading? Why is it important to read?

I want to really look at not just my reasons for wanting my children to be avid readers, but the facts and arguments for encouraging reading to all children. I’m sure I’ll turn up some interesting research, so check back for my follow up, but for now, please let me know inthe comments why you value reading.

 

Birthday books

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Today we are celebrating my son’s third birthday! I can’t believe he is three already.

Books have been a big part of his life since day one. Besides reading during the day, books became the centre of our bedtime routine. We would curl up together in our bed and my husband would read while I nursed our son to sleep – a practice that has continued with our second son. That first spring, we read Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, among other things.

Now, with our son having more of a say in the books we read, the stack is full of more age-specific selections, but we also read a section of longer books, such as Mal Peet’s Mysterious Traveller, a lovely story with wonderful illustrations. Our son also reads a board book (or two) to his baby brother; Moby-Dick is a favourite.

So to mark the occasion of my son’s third birthday, I am posting a picture of his first book (Polar bears), one of his favourite books (Frog and Toad are Friends), and the book we are currently reading (Bill Peet An Autobiography).

Charles books

Happy birthday, sweet boy! Mommy loves you bunches and bunches.